The letter, circulated to dozens of wealthy entrepreneurs in China last week, looked official. Topped with the insignia of a real Republican committee raising money for the party and President Trump’s reelection campaign, it purported to offer a handshake and a one-on-one photo with the president for $100,000 — a “VVIP” trip “to be remembered for a lifetime.”
The invitation, which Republican Party officials say they had nothing to do with, was not the only such offer. At least two other China-based companies circulated similar solicitations in the past week, offering access to Trump at an official fundraiser in Dallas on May 31, and charging two or three times the price of a ticket.
In an interview with The Washington Post, a Beijing man who claims to be an organizer of the excursion to Dallas said he coordinated a previous U.S. trip, bringing members of the Chinese business elite to snap selfies and pose for photos at a swanky Manhattan fundraiser headlined by Trump in December.
As part of his promotional materials for the Dallas trip, the man circulated pictures of wealthy Chinese business leaders, including a businessman known as the country’s first owner of a Ferrari, standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump in formal wear and giving a thumbs-up.
While U.S. election law prohibits campaign contributions from anyone but U.S. citizens and permanent residents, foreign visitors may attend fundraisers as long as they do not pay their own entry.
But some campaign finance experts say there would be ethical concerns if foreigners were routinely gaining access to the U.S. president through fundraisers. And the solicitations, if offering a legitimate service, raise questions about whether attendees are indirectly paying for their tickets through a U.S. donor, which would be illegal.
Republican Party officials confirmed the presence of Chinese nationals at the December fundraiser but said they knew nothing about the Dallas solicitations. After being contacted by The Post, they referred the invitations to federal authorities.
“We’ve never heard of these people, nor are we aware of any effort by them to illegally attend our events,” said Blair Ellis, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, which helped organize both events. “We maintain strict compliance with the law and have a zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who attempts to take advantage of the system in order to attend our events.”
Mica Mosbacher, a member of the Trump 2020 national advisory board and a GOP fundraiser in Texas, said the board had “no knowledge” of the solicitations to the Dallas event and “would not endorse this activity.”
A Republican Party official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss individuals at a private fundraiser said the Chinese visitors to the Dec. 2 gathering in New York — which encompassed several events, including a breakfast with Trump — were guests of a U.S. citizen donor, whom the official declined to name.
The Chinese guests had “minimal exposure to President Trump. They attended an event with hundreds of individuals and took a photo from a photo line,” the official said.
Every guest at an RNC event where the president or vice president is present must go through a rigorous vetting process with the Secret Service, the official said.
The fundraiser in Dallas next week is set to take place at a very sensitive time in the White House’s trade talks with China. Just two days after the event, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will be in China meeting with senior officials about boosting U.S. imports. Chinese officials have already made clear that they are trying to extract concessions from the White House in exchange for any agreement, making the talks very fluid. Business groups in both countries could stand to win or lose billions of dollars based on the outcome of the talks.
Sun Changchun, who described himself as the head of a Chinese cultural exchange company, is promoting the Dallas event on WeChat, a Chinese messaging service. He claimed to have arranged both the Dallas and New York trips. He told The Post that he planned to give the Dallas ticket proceeds to the RNC, but provided no evidence to substantiate that assertion or any relationship with the RNC. His understanding, he said, was that the RNC would in turn donate the money to charity.
Sun’s invite claims that he and his associates have “prior experience participating in three Republican president dinners in 2017,” including the New York visit. The Post could not independently verify his involvement in any trips.
In the interview, he said his Beijing-based company aims to raise the profile of Chinese entrepreneurs. The $100,000 per-person price tag includes airport pickup, lodging, meals and translator, the invitation says.
“When I started this company, I thought we could maybe act as a bridge between the two sides [U.S. and China] . . . to provide exchanges,” Sun said.
One of the influential Chinese guests who attended the December event was Li Xiaohua, the Ferrari owner and chairman of Huada International Investment Group, according to Chinese media reports, which published photos of him with Trump.
At least three other Chinese visitors attended RNC events that day, and one was photographed with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Chinese media reports said.
The Post contacted several Chinese guests whose U.S. trips Sun claims to have facilitated, including Li, but none agreed to an interview.
The solicitations follow a history of campaign finance controversies involving foreign money and U.S. elections, notably under the Clinton administration.
Before the 1996 presidential election, federal authorities found, the Chinese attempted to direct foreign contributions to the Democratic National Committee and later to President Bill Clinton’s legal defense fund. A longtime fundraiser for Vice President Al Gore was convicted in 2000 for her role in arranging more than $100,000 in illegal donations to the DNC.
Among the issues being examined by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in the Russia investigation is whether foreign money flowed into U.S. political campaigns.
The legal access that foreigners have to U.S. political fundraisers has long worried some campaign ethics experts.
“Let’s assume that it’s all actually domestic money being spent here. Then you have a question of access and influence,” said Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “It’s enormously beneficial for people, whether they are from America or whether they are foreign nationals, to show they have a picture with the president.”
Matthew Sanderson, who served as a campaign finance lawyer for the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign, said claims such as those in the Chinese invitations might get the attention of authorities. “What a regulator or prosecutor would be interested in is whether this is essentially the foreign national making a donation through a U.S. person,” he said.
“That’s a problem both because foreign nationals are prohibited from making campaign contributions and because the campaign finance disclosure reports are supposed to disclose the ultimate source of funds,” Sanderson added.
In addition to the invitation crafted to appear as though it was sponsored by the Republican Party, a different solicitation carried the logo of the China Construction Bank, one of China’s largest state-owned banks.
That invite claimed representatives from ZTE Corp. would attend the event, according to a copy obtained by The Post. This month, Trump announced via Twitter that his administration would be taking steps to prevent the Chinese telecommunications company from going out of business because of new trade restrictions.
ZTE officials said this week they had no part in the invitation or the fundraiser. “There are no representatives from ZTE Corporation or ZTE (USA), Inc., who have ever, or are planning, to attend such fundraisers,” Andrew Elliott, vice president of strategic marketing for ZTE USA, said in an email.
The invite purported to offer a photo opportunity with Trump and a ticket to the dinner for $150,000 — three times the amount charged by the RNC.
“In order to strengthen Sino-U.S. business exchanges, CCB Private Bank extends a special invite to Chinese entrepreneurs to visit the U.S. as VIP guests at the dinner event, for in-depth exchanges with American business tycoons,” the invite read.
Officials with CCB’s Shenzhen branch released a statement saying it had investigated reports of the invite and found that some employees were involved. “Our branch did not participate in organization,” the statement said.
Bank officials found that the invitation was organized by a group registered in Hong Kong called the Chinese Commercial Counsellor and Entrepreneurship Association and the Shanghai Vvisa Tourism Service Co., a Chinese tourism service.
In a statement, a company affiliated with Visa, Weijia Travel Consulting Services, said it was organizing the event with an American foundation. “The event will still take place under normal arrangements,” the statement read. “Shanghai Weijia organises this event with multiple organisations, fees for the event are paid for by clients who participate.”
Rauhala, Denyer, Amber Ziye Wang, Luna Lin, Shirley Feng and Yang Liu contributed from Beijing to this report. Lee, Narayanswamy, Damian Paletta and Steven Mufson contributed from Washington.